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Bronze Age Sparta

When we think about ancient Sparta, an image of Frank Miller's 300 inevitably comes to mind.  So when we talk about the story of the Trojan War and the beautiful Helen coming from Sparta, it's easy to assume that she came from a society where the boys were taken from home and enrolled in military barracks at age seven, and where even the girls physically trained to prepare them for their state duty: producing as many strong, powerful Spartan babies as possible.

This question of Spartan culture became important when I was researching Helen's Daughter way back in 2010-11.  What sort of world did Helen and Hermione inhabit?  How did it relate to its neighbors in Pylos and Mycenae?

Let's start with the familiar idea of hardcore, badass Sparta.  The Sparta of King Leonidas and Thermopylae was Classical Sparta, the militaristic Greek state created by the quasi-mythic Lycurgus in the seventh-eighth centuries B.C.  The Sparta of the Trojan War was a Bronze Age kingdom from the thirteenth century B.C., four hundred years earlier.  Assuming that ancient writers like Plutarch were not exaggerating the extremes of Classical Spartan militarism, the two Spartas had nothing in common except that they occupied the same piece of real estate.

The Menelaion, with the snowy peaks of Mount Taygetus in the distance.  In the Classical period, the Spartan elders of the Genousia allegedly threw defective babies into a chasm on Mount Taygetus.  This chasm has never been found, nor has any archaeological evidence of such extreme infanticide.

A French classicist, François Ollier, argued in his 1933 book The Spartan Mirage that "a major scholarly problem regarding Sparta is that all the surviving accounts of Sparta were written by non-Spartans who often presented an excessively idealized image of Sparta."  The consensus among historians today is that Sparta was not as hardcore as earlier thought.

So when we imagine Helen of Sparta, we should forget about the Sparta made infamous through Plutarch and later sources.  Helen's Sparta would have been part of the Mycenaean Koine.  Helen would have worn jewelry made by Cretan artists, wearing scented oils imported through, perhaps, the port of Tiryns or Pylos, worshipped before idols made, perhaps, in a workshop near Mycenae.  She would have feasted on red meat and wine, rather than the notorious melas zomas, the black blood broth of legend.

Thirteenth century B.C. Sparta belonged to what is known as the "Mycenaean Koine," or shared culture.  Mycenaean kings like Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Nestor shared the same taste in architecture, decoration, and material objects.  Homer in The Odyssey describes Menelaus's palace as being decorated with silver and gold.  This was not merely hyperbole.  Surviving evidence reveals the garishness of the Mycenaean palaces.  These two Cretan-manufactured cups from a Spartan site named Vapheio, for example, speak to a culture that Leonidas and Lycurgus would have frowned upon:


Favorite Historical People

First things, first.  The first draft of Danae is finished and in the hands of my alpha reader.  He is, however, in the midst of another project, and so the editing process will be slow.  Which is fine by me, even though the manuscript comes in at 412 pages, or 191,000 words.  Gives me time to work on the interior artwork.

Now to the meat of this post.  A question over at Goodreads ("Who is your favorite historical person?") had me answering outside the box.  Don't expect me to name somebody famous.  My favorite historical people are the real-life men and women listed on the Linear B tablets, mostly because we know just enough to be curious enough to want more information.  We can argue till next week whether Helen of Sparta was a real woman (I personally think she was a composite of several real Mycenaean royal women and goddesses), but there's no arguing that the priestess Eritha of Spaghianes, for example, was a real 13th century B.C. woman of Pylos.

What happened with the court case between Eritha and the local damos, anyway?  The elders claimed the land she leased was on her own behalf, rather than a god's holding, meaning she owed taxes on it.  Eritha, on the other hand, claimed that she owned the land on behalf of a god, making it tax-exempt.  Frustratingly, the judgment on that case is lost.  Or was Pylos and its districts sacked and burned, and the litigants possibly killed, before a judgment was rendered?  I would have to check my reference materials, but I believe the tablets also name two of Eritha's subordinates, who held property on behalf of the gods.

I smell the possibility of an interesting story here.

It reminds me of the court case of the free woman Justa, daughter of a freed slave, heard in Pompeii/Herculaneum on the eve of the Vesuvius eruption in August, A.D. 79.  Justa had done fairly well for herself (there is also evidence suggesting that she was a secret Christian), but the members of her mother's master's family claimed she was a slave belonging to them (which would have made her fortune theirs, incidentally).  What happened, or would have happened had Vesuvius not erupted, no one knows.  Did Justa survive the eruption?  One hopes she did, and that she went on to prosper as she had done before.

The Larissa of Argos

In the Orestes novels, I make repeated references to the Larissa of Argos.  The Larissa is the fortified citadel which would have sat atop the high mound of Argos, overlooking the lower town.  A medieval castle from the 10th century A.D., also called the Larissa, stands where the original Mycenaean fortress would have stood.

Mycenae may have had its strategic advantages, for it dominated northeastern Argolis, and the north-south road from Tiryns through the Kelossa Pass to Nemea and Corinthia, but even its impressive situation could not outdo the commanding view of the entire region and the Argolic Gulf that the rulers of Argos enjoyed.

During the Trojan War, Argos was ruled by Diomedes of the mighty war cry, who led the Argive contingent of eighty black ships.  Agamemnon's Mycenaean contingent of a hundred ships came mostly from Achaea and Corinthia, not Argos, as some might assume.  Later, Agamemnon's son Orestes ousted the last Argive king, Cylarabes, from his throne, and annexed Argos to his Mycenaean and Spartan territories.

Argos has been continuously inhabited for more than 7000 years, making it one of the oldest settlements in Europe.  The name "Argos" has a pre-Greek, or Pelasgian, origin, and is possibly related to "argurios," the ancient Mycenaean word for "silver" or "shining brightly."  "Larissa" is without a doubt a pre-Greek word.

Mycenae Film

While browsing through Yahoo!Images and YouTube, I stumbled across an intriguing short film which seems to be the introduction to an unfinished project.   The soundtrack is a reconstruction of what Homer would have sounded like 2,800 years ago, and the images are a combination of real footage of Mycenae, some great miniature work, and actors in costumes.  I can't say much for the acted bits, but there's some great research here.



In Search of the Trojan War

It's come to my attention that some of my readers never learned about the Aegean Bronze Age in school.  Let me remedy that by making a video recommendation.  Now, I own several excellent films and many books on the subject, but this particular documentary series and its companion book rate among the best.

Michael Wood's 1985 series In Search of the Trojan War is well worth six hours of your time.  Although its stated purpose is to investigate the Trojan War, it goes beyond that.  Wood explores not only the history of the excavations at Troy, but also other sites known from Homer, such as Mycenae and Pylos.  He examines the nature of Mycenaean Greek literacy through an analysis of Linear B and its decipherment.  He discusses Mycenaean warfare and weaponry.  He traces forty of the locations named in Homer's Catalogue of Ships, and even goes to Sparta to examine the legend of Helen, and at Pylos he looks into the real-life Bronze Age women who were seized on piratical raids.

Even though the book and documentary came out more than twenty-five years ago, Wood's assertions still stand.  The only thing you may find woefully outdated is the model of Troy.  Remember, it was an age before CGI.

You get to see marvelous locations and some fantastic artifacts, and of course, there are the usual interviews with academics, many of whom are extremely interesting to listen to.

It sounds very dry, but isn't.  All this material is made accessible through Wood's lively style of presentation, some fantastic cinematography, and a great musical score by Terry Oldfield.  Even if your knowledge of the period is limited to vague memories of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, you should have no trouble following along.  If you want a detailed discussion, I highly recommend the companion book that inspired the series.

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